My Top 5 Songs of 2010

I don't usually (ever?) talk about music on this blog but I got the idea from an Austin conservative blogger named Robbie over at Urban Grounds who did a top-five post.  While I agree with less than 1% of what Robbie writes about politics, I check in on his blog from time to time and was pleasantly surprised to see that we do have some similar musical tastes (KOL and the Zac Brown Band being two of them).  It was kind of fun to hear what music another blogger enjoys, so I decided to steal the idea and do my own top five.  Thanks for the inspiration, Robbie.

1. Laredo - Band of Horses
My 2010 actually began with a trip to Laredo and a "crossroads with myself."  I love the dusty, mesquite-smoke sound of this song.  It just sounds like all of Texas blended into music: urban, rural, painful, comforting, wistful, gorgeous, grainy, vacant two-lane country roads and gridlocked I-35.

2.  Fisherman's Blues - The Waterboys
This song isn't new, but it's new to me.  I discovered it over the summer when I was out in West Texas and Glenn Smith and his daughter Katie covered it.  When I learn to play an instrument, there's usually a song that grabs me enough to make me want to learn it, even though it's way too hard to play.  I've been working on this song on my fiddle, and my mom and I played it (somewhat poorly) over Thanksgiving at the beach.

3.  Free - Zac Brown Band
The extended version of this song has some beautiful fiddle work at the beginning and the fact that it devolves into "Into the Mystic" (one of my favorite songs) at the end is just an added bonus.  This chord progression of this song also reminds me of some early 90's country song that used to play in the stables when I was eight years old at horse camp, so it stirs up memories of hay bales baking in the summer sun, nighttime trail rides and camp fires.

4.  Stay - The BoDeans
I have been listening to this on repeat for a couple of months now.  This song is mellow and sweet, just like it should be.

5.  Hard Believer - First Aid Kit
First Aid Kit is made up of two sisters from Sweden whose harmonies are stunning.  The rest of their debut album is pretty folksy, but I like the strength of this song and their single "Ghost Town."

Bonus: You knew I wouldn't forget F**K You.

Not Everything from Alaska is Bad

I hope this video from the Yup'ik village of Quinhagak brings you as much joy as it did me this holiday morning, no matter what you celebrate.

Merry Christmas.


Enemy of the Valley: Aaron Peña's South Texas Party Switch Stings Constituents

This post initially appeared on The Huffington Post.

Tony Martinez, who works in marketing for a produce company in a small town in the Rio Grande Valley called Edinburg, Texas, understands the significance of a powerful message.  That's why it's unsurprising that he remembers what party-switcher Aaron Peña's yard signs used to say -- and the promise they never fulfilled.

"He had these signs that said 'Fighting for the People,'" Martinez told me over the phone Sunday afternoon.  Martinez, a Marine Corps veteran who returned from combat duty in Iraq in 2005, appreciated Peña's interest in veteran's issues, like when Peña walked in a rally with Martinez to support a veteran's hospital being built in South Texas.  "People like me were loyal to him because he was loyal to our needs.  He would listen, y'know?"

But despite support from his mostly Democratic district, Peña's message -- and his politics -- took a strong right turn.

"I know legislation takes time but he's just been playing the fence for years," Martinez said, who's still waiting on a veteran's hopsital to come to the Rio Grande Valley.  "He's been in every photo op but can someone to actually point at something and say 'Aaron Peña did this?' No."

Peña appeared on FOX News on Sunday morning talking about his reasons for switching parties.  When asked by the reporter about Call Out Aaron Peña Day, an online initiative to publicly denounce Peña's party switch, Peña chuckled and said "There’s been absolutely no backlash where I live. I’ve been embraced by the community."

It doesn't seem that way to Martinez, an Edinburg native who said Peña has become the "laughing stock" of Hidalgo County since the switch.  "He comes from a big family," Martinez said.  "Aaron's dad was a respected attorney who's been down here for years, and people trusted the name.  He's tarnished that name."

Peña's rationale behind his party switch stems from a Eeyore-like refrain that complains that not enough is being done in South Texas by the Democratic Party, and yet ignores the fact that the Republican Party's platform seeks to disenfranchise minorities and suck state funding out of already low-income areas.  University of Texas-Pan American political science professor Dr. Samuel Freeman finds Peña's reasons for leaving the Democratic Party counter-productive. "One place where he and I are in complete agreement is that the Democratic Party has not paid sufficient attention to South Texas," said Freeman.  "But while Peña's criticisms [of the Democratic Party] are correct, his solution is absolutely wrong."

Dr. Freeman has lived in Edinburg for over thirty years and, as both a constituent of the district and professor of political science, found Peña's party switch to be "duplicitous."  Freeman's semester wrapped up yesterday, but when I asked if the campus had reacted at all to Peña's decision to leave the Democratic Party, Freeman was quick to answer.  "Everywhere I have gone, everyone I have talked to, they are all upset, angry, hurt [and] betrayed at what Aaron Peña has done.  The opposition is almost visceral," Freeman said.  "For Peña to say there hasn't been backlash...he's either delusional or a liar."

Another one of Peña's constituents, Amber Arriaga, lives in Donna, Texas and is a UTPA graduate who helped spread the word in South Texas about Call Out Aaron Peña Day.  She questions Peña's insistence that the Democratic Party's "professional left" in Texas has ignored her community.  "I don't feel ignored by the left, more like attacked by the right," Arriaga said, adding "I never see people like [John] Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison here."

Cornyn and Hutchison, two long-time Texas Republican Senators, voted Saturday against the DREAM Act, which seeks to provide pathways to US citizenship through military service and higher education for minors who arrive illegally in the States and graduate from US high schools.  It's because of the Republican Party's stance on this issue and others that directly affect the Hispanic majority of Peña's district -- like Arizona-style immigration legislation -- that make many of Peña's constituents feel jilted by Peña's sudden change of loyalty.

"Aaron Peña has gone over to the side of people who are unalterably opposed to anything and everything of any benefit to the people of the [Rio Grande] Valley," Freeman said.  "He has in a very real sense become an enemy of the people of the Valley."

Freeman, Arriaga and Martinez all agreed that the best way forward for Aaron Peña would be to resign, but are doubtful he will due to the fact that that he is unlikely to win in a Democratic stronghold like Hidalgo County.  Martinez, meanwhile, is strengthening his resolve.  "He can do anything he wants.  I'm going to support any Democrat who runs against him.  It's just a damn shame it's going to be in 2 years."



Often, when I meet someone, they say to me "Mean Rachel?  You're not mean."

Truth is, I'm not.

But what I am is a person of strong convictions with zero patience and a very, very short fuse.

So that's why it really frosts my Christmas cookies that Aaron Pena (hereby tilde-less and using his cleansed, conservative Republican namesake) decided to switch to the Republican Party a month after being elected as a Democrat.  This sure doesn't seem like some big life decision that Aaron Pena made randomly one cold December morning.  It's the decision made by someone who's looking out for numero uno, while his constituents live in poverty.

Now, to make matters worse, Pena is tweeting JFK platitudes to try to make people like myself less livid. "Forgive your enemies but never forget their names."  Really?  I don't think Rick Perry can even pronounce your name, Aaron.  He's also grousing about the "destruction of the center" which is really interesting given the fact that he has switched to a party whose leader wants to secede from the United States of AmericaHow the hell is that a move toward the center?

So yeah, I'm angry and I'm looking for a fight.  Pena, in Spanish, means a penalty or punishment.  And since Pena has always been such a social media warrior, voy a penar my amigo on his favorite battleground:  online.

So, please, join me and other bloggers and Twitterers for Call Out Aaron Pena Day.


Peña: Forget You

There's a lot I could say about Aaron Peña's party switch but for now, I think this Cee Lo song sums it up pretty well.  And, amigo, I'm taking small comfort in the fact that it looks like your own damn party can't even be bothered to put a tilde over your name.  Did they also remove it from your papers after they asked to see them?

Aaron Peña:  Forget you.  The only "shortsighted cabal" is the one standing behind you in the photo above.


Fight or Flight: Aaron Peña's Party Switch

As rumors began to swirl about his switching parties, State Representative Aaron Peña tweeted a blog post that I wrote a few weeks ago about the "Crisis of Character in the Democratic Party."

Peña's tweet of the post long after it had been pushed into the archives of my blog made me realize that the wound is still there.  To play off of Harold Cook's excellent metaphor of Peña leaving one party for the come-hither look of another, it's as though Democratic activists and their establishment players have been sleeping on opposite sides of the bed for quite some time now.

It's a messy marriage.  Peña's likely party switch didn't surprise me, but it did disappoint me.  Peña has always made himself available to me, and most bloggers, so in the process of writing this post, I decided to ask him if he had any comments for me.  This is what he wrote:

"I've been a Dem. since I first worked for Hubert Humphrey at the age of 5.  Was Pres. of Hidalgo County Young Democrats, State Pres. of Tejano Dems. Twice national delegate and one time national platform committee.  Was one of Clinton's top Texas donors.  Ran for state party chair.  Texas party took for granted Hispanic community and ostracizes moderate and conservatives.  I have spent my life trying to break the direction of the shortsighted cabal in charge."

My follow-up question was easy: "So why give up now?"

His answer?  Not so simple.  "Still thinking.  Go get em."

Whether you agree with Peña's ideologies or political choices he's made as a Democrat, one thing has always been fairly evident: he's not afraid of confrontation.  He's ready to fight for what he believes in.  On a personal level, his potential party switch makes me wonder what I could have done differently.  On a Party level, though, it makes me wonder how weak a party must become in order for it to no longer be worth fighting for.

Horses, and many prey animals, have a biological response caused by acute stress known as "fight or flight."  In times of great peril, their heart rate will go up, their peripheral vision narrows to focus soley on the threat facing them and they experience "auditory exclusion," the inability to hear anything around them.  There is a moment -- sometimes a split-second of time -- where all of these physical reactions enable them to either have the speed and agility to run away, or the strength and focus to stay and fight.

And maybe that's where Peña and I must go our separate ways.  Because while the Party has consistently disappointed me, since age 13 when I learned what a blow job was from Bill Clinton; since the first time I ever voted and my mom announced to a bunch of pot-bellied Republicans in line in front of us that I was there to vote for "Tony Sanchez, even if he is going to lose;" since our Gubernatorial candidate refused to be seen with our President; even after all of this, there is still so much worth fighting for in the Texas Democratic Party.  There is a woman whose body is controlled by a man.  There is someone on death row who will be killed for a crime he didn't commit.  There is an immigrant whose plight is the cultural makeup of this country.  There is a child across the street who doesn't have health insurance.  And there are two people who love each other who deserve equal rights.

There is struggle ahead and difficult change.  It is the moment of deciding whether we choose fight or flight, and I say we fight.  And while he's well-equipped to do either, I wish Peña would do the same.

Two losses

It is a tradition of mine to post a photo and my favorite quote of theirs when someone dies.  We have had two big losses over the last two days, so please take a moment to remember Carlos Guerra and Elizabeth Edwards.

Carlos Guerra

"Do I look illegal?"
-from Guerra's buttons, June 2010

State Rep. Aaron Pena has a nice blog post about his last meeting with Carlos Guerra during the State Convention in Corpus a few months ago.  This meeting happened to be the first -- and only -- time I would meet Carlos.  He was handing out buttons (in the picture above) that said "Do I look illegal?" on them, which I was really tickled by.

Harold Cook remembers Carlos
Coby remembers Carlos
XP remembers Carlos
Stace remembers Carlos

If you have a post up remembering Carlos, let me know and I'll add it here.

Elizabeth Edwards

"I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious."
-from Edwards' final statement

Follow Up to "Social Lobbying"

It was purely uncanny timing that my post on social lobbying went up on the same day that Austin-based ratings and reviews company Bazaarvoice announced that it hit a 1000-brand milestone.  CEO and co-founder Brett Hurt (on twitter: @bazaarbrett) has a post up about the announcement that even makes mention of the use of ratings and reviews in our government's future (emphasis mine):
When I left Coremetrics and started Bazaarvoice with Brant on May 2, 2005, it was because we were striving to help the eCommerce industry increase conversion. According to’s annual study, conversion rates were still under 3%, meaning 97% of visitors to eCommerce sites didn’t buy.
Soon we’ll share our opinions about everything — governments, employers, and people. This feedback won’t just help individuals make decisions — it has the power to improve almost everything in our world. It’s going to happen faster than you think — our 1,000 diverse and global brands are proving that.
This is a huge milestone for a quickly growing company based right here in Austin, and marks a larger shift in the way our own population is choosing to make decisions.  Working at a start-up with a similar potential for reach, it's exciting to see another local company with a global focus doing so stratospherically well.  Could this mean ratings and reviews are coming to your favorite politician's website sooner than we think?  Let's hope so.  For more on this issue, check out Hurt's piece on transparency and leadership (with specific mention of the Obama campaign opening the door to increasingly transparent government).

Social Lobbying: How Ratings and Reviews Could Change Politics

Holiday shopping is in full swing and, since I detest malls, I've been checking items off my list by shopping entirely online.  Whether I'm buying baubles or gadgets, one thing is consistent in my shopping habit:  I look for customer reviews.  I sort products by those that have the best ratings.  I want to know how others say items fit or feel.

When it comes to e-commerce and online shopping, ratings and reviews are fairly proven in terms of their widespread use. A study done in 2008 by Forrester Research found that, as of October 2008, almost half of US online adults read ratings and reviews at least once a month, which was doubled from 2007.  A more recent survey done by Brand Reputation in late 2009 found that 84% of consumers said they were more likely to check online for reviews prior to making a purchase compared to twelve months earlier.

This got me thinking about the way we shop, which really is just another way we make decisions.  I then started to wonder about how ratings and reviews could affect one of the most important decisions many of us make in our lives:  who we choose to vote for, based on how we expect them to perform.  The more I thought about it, the more I started to realize how many ways a broken political system could benefit from a concept that retailers bought into long ago.

1. Ratings and Reviews Put the Power in the End-User's Hands
Voting once every two or four years is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ensuring that an elected official will vote on legislation that you support.  If you think that just by voting for someone, your voice is being heard, you're mistaken.  When was the last time you wrote an email to your Congressman on an issue?  When was the last time you called your Senator to leave them a voicemail?  Guess what:  I had no idea you did that.  Odds are also very good that your Senator or Congressman didn't, either, unless one of his or her staffers placed the letter directly in front of them.

There may have been a time when phone calls and letter writing actually influenced Washington, when people stood in the street and talked to their neighbors and had strong ties within their community.  That time ended with the adoption of air conditioning and, later, personal computers, when families retreated indoors, left their front porches and yards, bought 52" plasma screen TVs and iMacs, and began living inside -- and online. In the meantime, someone is getting paid very, very well to be your voice in the Capitol.  That person is called a lobbyist. 

So how do you fight back?  You take your issue public.  Bloggers have been doing it for a few years now.  Our voices are very public and, typically, very extreme but that's usually the way to be noticed.  We may not influence everything an elected official does -- but we do often influence what he or she doesn't do, for the simple reason is that electeds can't get away with everything they used to.
Politicians come and go but one thing is consistent: they all have an ego, and they all want to know what is being said about them.  It's just been the case too often lately that the only people talking about elected officials are a very small slice of the actual voting-age population.  Ratings and reviews would allow Americans to collectively remind their elected officials exactly who they serve: the voters.

2. Ratings and Reviews Have a Low Barrier to Entry
Most people are simply not going to wake up in the morning, drink their coffee, and start a political blog.  And why should they?  I have a passing interest in shoes and clothing, but I have no interest in or authority to be writing a fashion blog.  But that doesn't mean I haven't taken five to ten minutes to review a pair of particularly uncomfortable flats I bought online at Old Navy.  If, while drinking your coffee one morning, you saw in your Facebook feed that a friend wrote a review of a Senator's stance on Don't Ask Don't Tell, you might be moved to do the same.  Then you would finish drinking your coffee and move on with the rest of your life. 

3. Ratings and Reviews Encourage Constructive Feedback and Change
Even though I was unhappy with my aforementioned shoes, it was mostly because they fit smaller than they should have.  Was I annoyed?  Yes.  But I didn't trash the shoes, or tell everyone to stop shopping at Old Navy -- after all, if I didn't like some of their products, I wouldn't shop there to begin with.  Instead, I offered a solution to future shoppers: buy one size larger than you normally would.

Sam Decker, former CMO of Austin-based ratings and reviews company Bazaarvoice and notable godfather of social marketing, wrote an article in 2007 called "Positives About Negative Product Reviews" in which he explained the effect of negative reviews on a product:
"Almost everyone describes looking for the negative comments to make sure they can live with any shortcomings in products they buy. We all know we don't live in a world of five-star products."
Decker goes on to talk about how, while sales of the iPod were wildly popular, most reviews mentioned the screen being easily scratched and recommended that buyers purchase a protective case.  Imagine that: a problem and a solution.  What would this sort of collaborative attitude do to our currently divisive, polarizing national conversation?  Change it entirely, or so we should hope.

That politicians have stopped listening to voters and started listening to lobbyists plays a huge part in the fact that the primary way we communicate our political views is by standing at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, screaming at each other, and hoping we're the loudest one in the room.

4. Ratings and Reviews Foster Authenticity
Voter apathy was rampant in the most recent midterm elections but it wasn't for lack of trying on the part of campaigns from both sides.  In a Politico article about a Women's Monitor poll of female Democratic voters just before the election, Alexander Burns wrote, "The information gap that emerged from the poll is clear: 44 percent of women in the poll agreed that 'it’s hard to get meaningful and accurate information.'"  Additionally, during an election year in which $4.2 billion dollars were spent on political TV advertising meant to deliver a message to voters, the Women's Monitor poll found that 53% of respondents said "they had no impression of their current member of Congress."

Perhaps this sentiment has something to do with what women consider to be "meaningful and accurate" information.  As our ways of consuming information change, so does our view of who is qualified to provide it.  For example, according to a survey of female US Internet users, consumer reviews are nearly 12 times more trusted than descriptions that come from manufacturers.

If we can't change the way we discuss and learn about politics, then nothing will ever change in a political process that everyone, no matter what side you're on, agrees is broken.  Could that be the way lobbyists and special interests want it?  To quote a notable Alaskan, if I may, "You betcha."